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Community Engagement Spotlight: Doug Sam

Doug Sam, a Vietnamese American man, stands smiling in front of an old brick building in a maroon shirt with a shoulder bag strap across his chest.

Doug Sam is a second-year EH student and a Mellon Community Fellow. The Mellon Community Fellowship in the EH Program is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Fellows form reciprocal partnerships with a community organization and develop a project that addresses local environmental justice issues. Doug has partnered with the Summit Land Conservancy for his fellowship, merging both his interests in environmental education and Indigenous history. Summit Land Conservancy is a nonprofit dedicated to saving open spaces of Park City and the Wasatch Back.

Doug is originally from Portland, Oregon and holds a B.S. in Environmental Studies and Geography from the University of Oregon. His thesis attempted to construct an Indigenous perspective on the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge using decolonizing methodologies and contemporary media sources. Before coming to Utah, he spent two years as an environmental educator with the Multnomah ESD Outdoor School teaching fourth-sixth graders from all over the Portland Metro area along the banks of the Sandy River and on Mount Hood. His current research interests are in the relationship between public lands in the American West and Indigenous peoples. For his fellowship, Doug focuses on the importance of decolonizing environmental education in the West and the challenges of building relationships between Tribal nations and community organizations.

I talked with Sam in November about his fellowship, aspirations as a historian, and his background in environmental education. Hear Doug talk about his project on Zoom on November 11, 2021 at 4 p.m.

Brooke: For your Mellon Community Fellowship, you established a partnership with the Summit Land Conservancy. What have you been working on with them over the past year?

Doug: I've been working with a couple of projects at the Summit Land Conservancy. I've been working with their education programs, both their outdoor explorer summer camps and the after-school programs for kids. I think trying to build connections between young people and the land is a great first step in their education about certain issues as they continue on with their educational journey. In addition, I think there's a renewed effort right now within the conservation world and with land trusts specifically to do decolonizing work, and a lot of organizations are unsure of where to start. So I'm also working with Summit Land Conservancy to establish things like, what is the native history of the land that we serve? Whose land is it, and who might we be able to potentially build partnerships with? Unlike most other land conservancies, I think we're on the cusp of owning our first piece of land outright at Marchant Meadows. So that also opens up possibilities to explore how might we restore this land in a way that also restores Native people and culture into a space from which they've been violently removed.

Brooke: How did you arrive at Summit Land Conservancy and choose to partner with them for your Mellon Fellowship?

Doug: I think your role should not be understated in how well you've connected so many of us in my cohort to really fruitful partnerships. So thank you for that. When I heard about Summit Land Conservancy and the work they were hoping to do, it seemed like a really great opportunity to intersect my interest and experience with environmental education along with decolonizing research and Native American history. I've had both of those backgrounds from before I came into EH. I've worked as an environmental educator for two years. Before that, during my undergraduate work at University of Oregon, I was lucky enough to be a part of a program called the Northern Paiute History Project, where we did decolonizing research with tribal partners that we could then give back to the Northern Paiute. So with Summit Land Conservancy, I saw a new opportunity to not quite copy those same experiences that I've had, but to use those experiences to move an organization forward that I think has its heart really set in the right place and wants to do something better than what they've done before. I have been able to be a part of helping craft what that might look like.

Brooke: When you talk about bringing a decolonizing framework to Summit Land Conservancy, I think about the journal article "Decolonization is not a metaphor" by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. They argue that decolonization means a specific thing: the repatriation of Indigenous land. How do land trusts looking to decolonize need to rethink their conception and relationship to land ownership?

Doug: I do believe that we need to return land to tribes whenever possible. But as far as what is the productive work that we can get done now with the board that we have now, with the resources we have now, with the partnerships that we have now, I think that there's still work that can be done that goes beyond just 'here's the history of this land.' We're going to acknowledge and respect that this is Ute land and Shoshone land. There are still concrete actions that we can take, even if we're not in position where we can directly give back land. I think we can still build partnerships that are meaningful and fruitful. Braidan Weeks with the Ute Land Trust shared with me that Ute people around the Uintah Basin oftentimes don't feel comfortable gathering willow and other culturally significant plants to carry on traditions so those traditions are at risk of being lost now. If we wait to build relationships until a time where we can actualize land back, are those traditions going to be lost? Can we perhaps build a relationship and create a safe space now that helps restore some of those practices, even if it doesn't go as far as what I think the ideal of land back is? We could still be able to contribute in a meaningful way, in a way that shows our commitment to allyship beyond just platitudes. I don't know if we'll get there in a year or five years, but that's the goal for now.

Brooke: What initially drew you to environmental and outdoor education? How does that background inform the work you're doing now?

Doug: It actually started back in sixth grade when I went to the MESD Outdoor School, where I also went on to work at the past two years. Outdoor school programs are pretty common throughout Oregon, Washington, and California. It's a pretty old tradition, specifically in Portland, where nearly every sixth grader has the opportunity to participate in an outdoor educational experience as a part of their regular public schooling. It's not a special program that only certain people can go to. In that way, it's one of the most inclusive experiences in outdoor ed out there. I had recently transferred middle schools, so I was relatively new to my school. The type of learning that I was able to accomplish out there and the support in the community was really meaningful to me as a sixth grader. So I made a promise to a puddle as I was boarding the bus that I would return in high school as one of the high school student leaders. Through that, I found a real love for teaching, for mentorship, and for building community. I think that that was a space that I felt really good in, empowered in, and I felt like I could make an impact on others' lives. That was the type of work that I continued to do when I graduated my undergrad. As I continue to learn more about education and bits and pieces about Indigenous methodologies and educational issues, outdoor ed, I think is also a really impactful place where we can also start teaching not only about nature but also about Native studies and Native history. Because teaching isn't confined within a classroom, it's a more organic process that can happen as students are ready and as students are curious in a way that feels a bit less structured.

Brooke: How does the work you're doing for your Mellon Fellowship overlap with your thesis research?

Doug: I really think the two go hand in hand to the point where sometimes it's hard to separate them. Initially, as it was conceived, my thesis was supposed to be about Native land use in the Wasatch Back and Native history of the Wasatch Back. That has really grown into work that I can do as a part of my fellowship. I started thinking about Linda Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies, where she gives a pretty damning indictment of history as a field and its relevance towards Indigenous peoples. She writes that “history is not important for [I]ndigenous peoples because a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the ‘fact’ that [I]ndigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice.” So, I started thinking about how can I make my work and research matter to Native people, especially within the context of the Wasatch Back itself where there aren't very many Native people currently living. Most people conceive of history in the Wasatch Back starting with mining and white settlement. So, I wanted to develop curriculum that Summit Land Conservancy and others might be able to use to more specifically talk about Native history, especially in terms of Native history after 1900. When we look at school standards, a 2015 study found that 87% of school standards addressed Native history before 1900, which means that very few schools require learning more about Native history after 1900, much less in the present day. In Utah, that is such a disservice because Native people form such an integral part of our communities and our state and continue to be so marginalized by the state itself. The Ute Indian Tribe v. Utah cases, stretching back to the 1970s and continuing to this day, are one example, where the state of Utah continues to erode Native sovereignty in an illegal way. Then of course with the land, I started thinking about how we can use this space. What could it mean? What are the possibilities of building a partnership surrounded on land? Land matters so much.

Brooke: After EH, you're hoping to pursue a PhD in history. What sort of perspectives are you hoping to bring to your future work as a historian?

Doug: I think one of the first things for me is doing research that matters. That means looking to Native people if you're going to do Indigenous research. That's been a challenge at the master's level because it's so short. Cynthia Benally's class has really helped me to frame not going towards tribes first and saying, "Here's my idea, will you work with me?" But rather focus on building relationships and trying to understand what is work that is already being done, or what is work that needs to be done heard from the mouths of Native people themselves. That is important so that we can build partnerships and create research that matters, research that isn't extractive but rather reciprocal. I think that's a perspective that's really needed within history to make sure that we remain a relevant discipline and a discipline that is respectful and isn't just a force for ourselves, but a force for good that matters to other people. I think one of the critiques of history is that it's inaccessible, and that it doesn't really matter. Many great public historians exist, many people in the American West Center, Greg Smoak being among them, are doing important, accessible work. But we don't often think about how we translate this history towards an audience outside of academia. I think that my education background, and the fact that I'm passionate about teaching, helps me to frame that as an avenue to make history more relevant. Because we can't build coalitions around land back and Native sovereignty if people don't believe that those things matter within their own lives, their own communities, and their own lands, especially if they don't even know anything beyond that this place once had Indians and now we're here. So, I think trying to counter that is an important starting step towards actual decolonization as Tuck and Yang refer to it.

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Last Updated: 12/12/23